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Tiny outback town’s offer of ‘free land’ draws interest from the coast to Hong Kong

·4-min read

It was only ever intended as a solution to a housing crisis in the tiny, outback town of Quilpie, in south-west Queensland.

The plan was to build a maximum of five homes by offering “free land” to new home builders in response to the housing shortage being experienced across regional Australia.

But the Quilpie council’s offer of grants of up to $12,500 – the equivalent of a new block of land in that area – has attracted a massive response nationally and from overseas,

including more than 250 inquiries from as far afield as Hong Kong and India.

Stuart McKenzie, the mayor of Quilpie, said “if we got three or four homes built out of it we’d have been happy, but the amount of interest has been extraordinary”.

Related: Twofold crisis: regional Australia housing shortage compounding poor mental health

Quilpie council CEO, Justin Hancock, said expressions of interest have come from a variety of groups, both in terms of demographic, and the motivations for people wanting to move to the outback town.

Hancock said there has been significant interest from families living in Australia’s larger cities coming out of lockdown who are looking to move because “they don’t want to be locked up, they want to enjoy wide open spaces”.

Even before the grants became available, he said many people who had previously left, had wanted to move back to the shire. And many people who had come to work for short stints in Quilpie “fall in love with the community and never want to leave”.

With a free pool facility offered by the council, a 24-hour gym, golf and bowls clubs, post office and pub, Hancock said “we’ve got all the services we need at our fingertips. People don’t miss out in this community.”

The problem the town faces is that they have more people and job vacancies than houses available.

The home-builders’ grant was Hancock’s brainchild. He had first-hand experience of the housing shortage when he moved to the town for his job in January this year.

“There was only one unit available, which was in the retirement village, where I lived for the first six months in the shire,” Hancock said.

“It was a very unique situation. My neighbour in the complex celebrated her 90th birthday; a few weeks later I celebrated my 30th.”

Hancock said, as a member of the council, living in the retirement village was the perfect opportunity to hear the concerns and appreciation of constituents, but it meant daily activities, like the timing of hanging out his washing, became a strategic decision based on how many questions he wanted to answer on a given day.

Hancock said, despite the council building eight new houses in the past five years and a further commitment to building 10 more in the future, they needed private investment to keep up with the demand.

Twenty-three-year-old Tom Hennessy and his fiance, 24-year-old Tessa McDougall, qualified for the grant and have been one of the first to follow through on buying one of the blocks of land.

Hennessy said the offer was “too good to pass up” and had helped the couple bring forward their plans of buying their first house.

Hennessy was born and raised in Quilpie but McDougall only moved to the town from Brisbane two years ago, after she took a job as a primary school teacher.

Hennessy said the couple were both happy to settle down there, especially now that the grant “sets us up for the future” with nothing to worry about once the house is built.

Dr Kim Houghton, the chief economist at the Regional Australia Institute, said housing markets have stalled in smaller rural communities because of the difficulty of getting loans approved due to the bank models using transaction data based on cities.

Houghton said what’s happening in Quilpie is “really exciting. It’s quite a creative solution because it’s starting to do something to disrupt that stalled market.”

“What the Quilpie experience is telling us is that they’re getting interest from these free blocks from outside [the] region and even overseas. Part of this is a marketing issue. Not enough people know there is land available in these communities, and an investment case can be made to justify a new-build,” Houghton said.

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